Let’s be honest, modern Britain is woefully misinterpreted.
An Australian was cast as William Wallace. The English are stereotyped as permanent Victorians – overly-civilised, sexually repressed, effeminate tea-drinking queue lovers in top hats (Hugh Grant hasn’t helped to defeat this image). When Wales is mentioned, most people think of blubbery ocean-going mammals.
We might be trying to find our place in the world and hold down a steady job in today’s globalised, Facebook-equipped civilisation , but our ancestors spent a thousand years biting the bigger kids in the playground and shoplifting.
So with this in mind, its time to investigate some of the nastier events that happened as our nation grew up and mellowed out.
5) Bannockburn (First Scottish War of Independence), 1314
The Scottish have been known throughout history for scaring the hell out of invaders, marauders and foreign football fans. By 117 ad, the Roman Empire contained 88 million people (about 35.3% of Earth’s population). When they found the Scots, they decided to wall off the entire country and leave them to it (perhaps fearing a future of deep fried pizza?)
The 1300s were a crap time to be alive. For the Scottish, things were rubbed in by England, an aggressive neighbour who wouldn’t just steal your lawn furniture, he’d burn down your house and kick your dog.
Bannockburn saw King Edward II’s English army of over 20,000 face Robert Bruce’s 6,500 Scots in two days of battle.
Suffering from a weak King, poor leadership and facing a united and determined opposition, 12,000 English infantry and cavalry died for few Scottish casualties.
4) Crécy (The Hundred Years War), 1346
The 14th century saw famine, bubonic plague and an invading Mongol army. A difficult century caused one thing, en masse. Was it people putting aside their differences to face a bad situation? Nah, it was lots and lots of war, specifically the Hundred Years War.
At Crecy, French Knights charged through retreating crossbowmen, cutting down many for cowardice (the crossbowmen had discovered that against longbows they may as well throw rocks). As this century lacked the national curriculum or CBBC, the Knights were not clever enough to consider that they were charging up a muddy hill into bows that could have six arrows in the air at once.
France lost 14,500 infantry and knights including King John of Bohemia (in honour of whom the Prince Edmund adopted modern Wales’ three feather emblem) for only 100-300 English casualties.
Crécy is considered the beginning of the end for chivalry. English soldiers murdered many prisoners and master tactician and gentleman tosser The Black Prince was on hand to garnish the turd. French defenders had to be coerced into attacking and Edmund’s answer was the charming tactic “chévauchée” in which mounted knights and men-at-arms rode through the countryside smashing, burning and murdering in every village and farm along the way.
It was the final proof of how effective (and rotten) the combination of murder, arson, destruction of property and the longbow was.
3) Jutland (The First World War), 1916 [Skagerrak fur Deutsche leser]
When World War One began, the British Grand Fleet had quickly blockaded Germany’s only coastal region to prevent imports. This became important for Germany as “ersatz” (read as: “substitute”, or “tastes like sawdust”) food filled the gaps. Too small for a direct fight, the Imperial Germany Navy planned to lure out and destroy a portion of British warships.
What followed was, per tonnage of ships, the largest naval confrontation in history. By 10.30am on May 30th, the largest fleet in the world was sailing under the command of Third Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (try saying that drunk). Unfortunately, after that things stopped being so grandiose and turned into a hefty a cock-up.
British Admiralty intelligence proved inaccurate and through poor signalling and position, confusion, lack of initiative and bad luck, a group of powerful Dreadnought battleships sailed in the wrong direction, missing the beginning of the battle.
Despite outnumbering the German fleet with bigger, more heavily armed ships over 6,500 British seamen were left wounded or dead with 14 ships lost (113,300 tons) for over 3,000 dead or wounded German sailors with 14 smaller ships sunk (62,300 tons).
In the words of Admiral Sir David Beatty, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”
2) Towton (The Wars of the Roses), 1461
The Wars of the Roses were a series of dynastic wars between the noble houses of York and Lancaster, who fought for the English throne and control of the country’s future. Towton was a decisive victory for the future Edward IV and saw the destruction of the Lancastrian army – it is considered the single bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil.
Though historians are unsure of numbers involved, approximately 42,000 Lancastrians and 36,000 Yorkists are believed to have entered the battle. 28,000 (possibly more) are estimated to not have left – 1% of the entire English population.
Beginning with volleys of arrows from both sides, melee fighting became so intense walls of bodies reportedly had to be cleared before fighting could continue. However, after the Lancastrians were outmanouvered, became outnumbered and were flanked, the rout that followed proved far costlier.
The butchery that followed is believed to be a result of both sides agreeing that no mercy would be shown and no quarter given. Several bridges collapsed under the weight of so many armed men, who fell into the freezing water. Those left either drowned trying to swim across or were cut down by the Yorkists. At Bloody Meadow, men reportedly crossed the River Cock over dead bodies and fleeing survivors were chased down and killed all the way from Towton to Tadcaster.
1) The Somme (World War 1), 1916
Masterminded by General Sir Douglas Haig, with 1.5 million allied casualties it is one of the bloodiest campaigns on record. Poor communications and confusion throughout Allied command meant it was days before leaders realised the extent of the disaster.
Gaps in German defences went overlooked and thousands of men walked into positions supposedly cleared by artillery but in fact bristling with machine guns and unbroken barbed wire. The debut of a new invention, the C-15 Mk.1 “tank” (named after the “water tanks” their transport crates were labelled as to mislead spies), provided mixed results.
On the first day alone, 57,470 British casualties were recorded and 9 Victoria Crosses (the highest military honour) were awarded. Through the three months of battle, 350,000 men were wounded or killed and 100 tanks lost, as were 782 Royal Flying Corps aircraft. Field Marshal Haig was dubbed the ‘Butcher of the Somme’, his belief in “war of attrition” (kill more of the enemy than you lose, and you’ll surely win) meaning he never changed his tactics despite their tragic flaws.
The British army has never lost more men in a single day. Between July and November, Britain and France gained only 5 miles of ground.